02/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who Got Coal in Their Stockings?

San Francisco -- The holidays began with a grim reminder that today's coal industry is anything but clean. The massive (5.4 million cubic yards -- a billion gallons) spill of coal ash at the Kingston Power plant in Tennessee devastated homes, covered hundreds of acres, and threatens rivers, wildlife, and drinking-water sources. And there is plenty of responsibility to share -- a disaster like this doesn't happen without multiple parties behaving irresponsibly -- and they all should have received coal in their stockings. Here's a partial list:

1) The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This federal government agency, created by Franklin Roosevelt to help the people of the Tennessee Valley, has became a major bad actor based on its careless handling of nuclear power plants (remember Brown's Ferry?) as well as its dirty, polluting, coal-fired power plants (the Sierra Club has repeatedly had to sue the TVA over air pollution) and now its reckless handling of ash and coal waste from those power plants. The waste at Kingston was piled as tall as a six-story building, covered 99 acres, and secured in an unlined pond and behind a dike. The TVA knew there were problems and risks at the site but rejected effective measures to stabilize the waste,  apparently because taking remedial action at Kingston would have created pressure to do the same at other ash-storage sites.

2) The Environmental Protection Agency. Faced with widespread public concern that the coal ash might be contaminating rivers, particularly given the very high levels of heavy metals typically found in such waste, the agency promptly moved to sample the water and reassured that public that all was well. The EPA reported that its water-quality samples did find heavy metals in the rivers, but that they were "below concentrations" known to be harmful to humans. "The one exception may be arsenic," the agency said in a letter to an affected community. "One sample of river water out of many taken indicated concentrations that are very high and further investigations are in progress."  What the EPA did not tell the public was that the water-quality samples were not taken in the immediate vicinity of the spill but were upstream from the major source and had no bearing whatever on what was happening to the river downstream!

It wasn't until January 1 that Appalachian Voices, an independent watchdog group, was able to release its own water-quality results from immediately downstream of the spill. These results were, unsurprisingly, far more alarming than those from the EPA and TVA. They showed that "concentrations of eight toxic chemicals range from twice to 300 times higher than drinking water limits." The EPA still hasn't released findings of water-quality sampling it must surely have done from locations closer to the actual spill.

So once again we have a cover-up from the federal agency charged with protecting our health.

3) The Clean Coal Carolers, aka the ad agencies that work for the coal industry. These agencies has been running a very well-heeled, and at times very sophisticated, campaign to persuade Americans that yes, indeed, coal is clean. But they seem to have taken leave of their senses this holidays, putting out a website called "The Clean Coal Carolers," which features such nifty lyrics as:

Frosty the coal man is a jolly happy soul...

There must be magic in clean coal technology

For when they looked for pollutants

There was nearly none to see.

Their timing couldn't have been more ironic.

4) LS Power. A year ago LS Power teamed up with Dynegy to propose six new coal-fired plants. Dynegy watched what was happening to the market and to public attitudes towards coal and, over the holidays, paid LS Power $19 million to get out of the joint venture. Dynegy's stock promptly went up by 19 percent, the biggest rise among any of the S&P 500 stocks that day, a rise Bloomberg attributed directly to the company's ridding itself of the coal albatross around its neck. LS Power, apparently a slower learner, announced that it would try to bull its way ahead and build the six plants, even in the face of a massive Sierra Club-organized grassroots campaign against all six plants.

5) The National Mining Association. Faced with a catastrophe, the coal industry simply continued to deny that anything has changed. National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich, speaking about the spill, glossed over it: "We ought to be looking at how do we prevent such accidents in the future, but this is not an indictment of clean coal technology or coal utilization." Perhaps Mr. Popovich should read the clean coal carol above -- and I'll be glad to find him some very visible, easy-to-see pollutants near Kingston, Tennessee.

6) Lawyers for Duke Energy. A federal judge has reopened a lawsuit brought by environmentalists against Duke over its practice of modernizing power plants without cleaning up their emissions in violation of the Clean Air Act. The Judge ruled that Duke's lawyers had concealed the fact that a witness who testified on their behalf had secretly been paid $200 and hour, a fact that was not disclosed. In addition to reopening the case, the Court ordered Duke's lawyers to appear in court to explain why they should not have their licenses to practice in federal courts revoked.

So does anyone get sugarplums? Well, Dynegy should, for learning. And so should the people of Appalachia, particularly their citizen groups, like Appalachian Voices, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and individual landowners, for taking on the coal industry and for bringing the lawsuits that may be necessary to return TVA to its original mission of restoring, not destroying, the environment of the Tennessee Valley.